I’m so excited to introduce our first hand-carved woodblock designer that we’re featuring on the Behind the Stationery column! Rachel from Heartell Press is here to take us through her processes – from the intricacies of designing and carving each block, to growing her business, to ensuring her team is self-sufficient enough for her to take some time to adjust to being a new mom. She started Heartell Press in Brooklyn, but has since moved to Indiana with her husband and into a beautiful spacious studio. Here’s Rachel! —Megan Soh
From Rachel: Heartell Press cards are printed from hand-carved woodblocks. Woodcut was always my favorite of the printmaking processes, and the folksy look of the carved images and the organic textures created by the woodgrain are a good fit for our warm, sincere designs and messages. There are great designers who use linoleum blocks (Katharine Watson, Ghost Academy, and Kaibelle Designs are my favorites), but as far as I know we are the only line printed from wood. It has taken lots of trial and error to learn to print our blocks consistently and at scale using letterpress equipment, but I think our customers appreciate that each card is truly handmade on every level.
The carving is time-consuming, especially because each color we add to a design means carving a separate block. I’m always working on ways to preserve the look and feel of what we make while streamlining the process for producing our products. For the new spring collection we’re working on now, I’m carving the key block — the part of the image that has the most detail and information — and experimenting with photopolymer plates to add lots of additional color. I’m excited because if it works we’ll be able to release new cards with lots of color and add new types of products to our line more frequently while still offering cards and prints that are true to the Heartell aesthetic and unique in our industry.
My path to stationery was long and winding. It took doing a lot of the wrong things to find the right thing. I went to grad school twice, first to earn an academic degree in religion and art history from Yale Divinity School and then an MFA in printmaking from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. After I finished school in 2009, I moved to New York and cobbled together a living with multiple part-time jobs. I worked in a church, as a nanny, and eventually ran a non-profit. All the while I was renting a (super expensive and tiny) art studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, and trying to squeeze in as many hours per week there as possible making paintings and prints. I had a few shows in Brooklyn and Manhattan, but it was tough trying to build an art career and pay rent in New York.
In 2012 my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and that experience made me question the chaotic existence I was living and inspired me to find a way to do the creative work I love full time. Since I was having a hard time finding sympathy cards that I liked enough to send to my mom between visits, I started having ideas for making my own cards. People in my life and my community in Brooklyn were responding to them in a way that made me think there might be something there.
I began to look more closely at the stationery industry, and when I discovered that there was a wholesale market for handmade stationery, especially at the National Stationery Show (through the OSBP blog!), the idea for Heartell Press was born. I did research and worked on developing my line and launched the website in 2014. I exhibited for the first time at NSS in 2016 and that is when the wholesale part of Heartell took off and I was able to leave my day jobs and focus on the business full time.
In 2016, my husband and I decided to leave Brooklyn and move to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he grew up. The move has been great for us and for Heartell, giving me lots more time and space to devote to it. In November 2017, we moved the business into a new studio space here in Fort Wayne. It is two-thirds less expensive than the space I rented in Brooklyn and eight times bigger! We have room for our presses, including a new (to us) 10×15 Chandler and Price that we added to our shop when we moved, as well as inventory, a shipping and fulfillment space, office space for me to do my designing and carving, and plenty of storage. The building has a beautiful atrium full of tropical plants that is like a greenhouse, and I love being able to walk around it when I need to think or stretch after lots of drawing or carving.
Heartell designs start with bits of text or images that I collect in lists for each card and product category (I use Trello for organizing all my lists, plans and tasks). My best cards are inspired by experiences I’m having in my own life and relationships. The earliest Heartell cards are all sympathy, love, and encouragement cards that I made when my mom first got sick. It will be pretty obvious when the new collection comes out that many of the designs I’m working on now have been inspired by the experience of being pregnant (and also watching friends and family members who have had children).
I try to make cards that I would genuinely want to give or receive. There are lots of funny cards right now about all the (sometimes unwelcome) changes that come when you have a baby, like having to deal with tons of poo, and those definitely serve an important purpose in the process of preparing to be a parent. Funny isn’t really my forte though, and I tend to swing toward more sincere, emotional messages. When I do retail markets I almost always have a customer tear up at my booth at some point during the event. I’m not sure if making people cry is something I should be proud of but I’m glad that I’ve found a way to put all my feelings to good use!
When I’m ready to design a new collection, I go through our current catalog to see which parts of our line could use fleshing out or freshening up. Then I comb through my stockpile of ideas and draw thumbnails with colored pencils to begin mapping out new designs. Once I have an idea of the collection as a whole, I use my Wacom tablet and Photoshop and Illustrator to draw the full scale images and lay out the text. I used to do this with pencils and markers on vellum, doing lots of tracing and scanning to come up with the final designs, but the tablet has made the process much faster and more fun.
When the designs have been edited and vetted by as many people as I can get to look at them and I’m satisfied with my plans, I print guides using a laser printer and transfer them to blocks of Shina plywood (a wood that is both soft for easy carving and strong enough to hold detail that is harvested sustainably in Japan specifically for printmaking). I use Japanese carving tools to carve the blocks, and then we mount them in the presses for printing.
Since there is a separate block for each color, including the scoring run, some cards pass through the press up to four times! I love seeing the new designs printed for the first time. It is always a thrill to see something I’ve dreamed up become a finished product.
Like many of the business owners I’ve read about in this column, I spend a lot of my time these days running the business end of things. Fortunately I’ve discovered that I enjoy communicating with customers, managing cash flow, looking at numbers and planning for growth. But now that I have help with fulfillment and printing, I am finding lots more time for drawing and designing and carving blocks for new products, which are my favorite parts of my job. I love working on marketing projects too, and I do all our product photography, design our catalogs, and prepare for trade shows.
I set different goals for each year, and my big one for 2018 is to get Heartell ready to run without my constant attention for a few months while I take some time to welcome our new baby and adjust to being a parent. I feel grateful to have lots of inspiration from other business owners in our field (Nole included!) who have families, and while I’m sure it will be a big transition I feel confident that we’ll be able to find a good equilibrium over time.
I’ve come to find that stationery is a better fit for me than fine art for a lot of reasons, but one of the things I love most about this industry is how generous and open people are. The fine art world in New York has a deeply competitive culture, and it has been a gift for me to connect with other designers and retailers who are willing to share information, encouragement and support. The more variety there is in terms of design, the more letters people will write and the more connected they’ll be to each other. It feels like we are all part of something that is bigger than any one company or store individually and I love looking at things that way.
Want to be featured in the Behind the Stationery column? Reach out to Megan at megan [at] ohsobeautifulpaper [dot] com for more details.